SO JUST HOW PLUGGED-IN ARE WE, REALLY?

New media are all around us. Do they also have an all-pervasive influence on our thoughts? And who or what would be setting the agenda? Someone waiting at a bus stop far out of town, not in possession of a mobile phone, an mp3, ipod or any other online device might classify as offline. But perhaps their thinking patterns reveal the REAL influence of the normally so ubiquitous media. One way to find out might be to analyse the most direct territory the media share with their readers; language. Year-end reviews that most publications run annually provide the perfect testing material here.

The most fashionable word in global English language media during the year 2006 appears to have been ‘sustainable’. That is what the people at the Global Language Monitor.com in San Diego believe. This organization tracks word use in the media and their findings figure, because alternative sources point in the same direction. The New Oxford American English dictionary pronounced ‘Carbon Neutral’ Word of the year. And an ABC News/New York Times poll conducted mid year had an overwhelming 66% of all respondents indicating global warming is a serious issue. Let’s, for clarity’s sake, hypothetically state that our person at the bus stop skipped all sustainability related news items for the entire year. Will they have been completely out of touch?

You will instinctively believe this is hardly a possibility. And that is what most network experts also assert. But that does not mean that they are not all working like crazy to delve into the data looking for clues. Most data experts assert that the whole idea of the internet and networks are best visualized. So called scale-free networks, thrive on this. Discovered in 1998 by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, these networks derive their dynamics mapping the global web from the uneven distribution of connectedness. Barabasi was as surprised about this inequality as you and I would have been. He termed his empirical findings of the way a web structure functions ‘ scale free’ ; they don’t conform to the accepted model of random connectivity, but instead follow a cut-throat scheme hardly any different from your average capitalist theory.

In his book Linked, Barabasi says that “Once we stumble across the right vision of complexity, it will take little to bring it to fruition. When that will happen is one of the mysteries that keeps many of us going”.

Manuel Lima, an interaction designer at R/GA Interactive who teaches Information Design at the Parsons Design+Management department in New York, says that since the late 1990s, dozens of researchers worldwide have been disentangling the networks around us at an amazing rate. “The global effort of constructing a general theory of complexity is tremendous and may lead us, not only to a structural understanding of networks, but to major improvements in stability, robustness and security of most complex systems around the globe,” according to Lima.

Followers of Barabasi also refer to scale free networks as ‘power law distribution’, which is used more to highlight the notion the selfishness implied in network clustering. Where does that leave us in terms of finding out about the way the humble term sustainable has been traveling through the ether? Not a lot further just yet. For the time being, even the scientists are hardly unanimously agreed that “scale” refers to “the connectivity embodied by the average node and fixed by the peak of the degree distribution.”

Google appears in a hurry to outpace some form of competition here; it frequently publishes news on most widely used search terms on its Zeitgeist pages. These are hardly anything more than regularly updated and categorized lists of frequently queried words and phrases, seriously scanned for their content, but to the average analyst they represent a goldmine of information.

The experts are for the time being not even agreed that blogs are scale free. Greg Tyrelle, a Phd student from Taiwan, wrote in his blog about an experiment he conducted to see if blogs are scale free in structure. He invented an artificial meme which he christened the GoMeme in order to see just how it mutated, and how those mutations propagated. The experiment was hardly a success even though it only involved tracking 222 memes. This highlights just how difficult larger scale research must be, let alone the effort to find out how media reach a person that ain’t on the look out for the very issue that will have dominated the agenda of major newspapers by dint of recurring more frequently than most other issues.

One additional factor here is the focus of the effort; all internet publications are as much about reading (receiving) as they are about writing (sending), but if you analyse the blogosphere tools, it appears that most of the analysis is done on the sender end of the spectrum (ie how bloggers write about the world) and to a lesser extent on the receiver end (how bloggers themselves or the non-writing readers are impacted).

The subconscious point of impact, i.e. the influence that is ungraspable, somewhat remains a mystery, all the more so because it involves a receiver phenomenon, something that with people’s decision to consider the human body and systems one and the same, has been relegated to the dustbin as a distinct category of research. This is at once a dangerous and an understandable trend. Life itself doesn’t appear to offer such different a scenario; consciousness is hardly quantifiable on its own and if the mind and systems appear to operate largely along the same pathways, would it be necessary to make a distinction? Some argue that in order to understand life to the max one needs to employ every tactic available, that merging body and technology is imperative for survival even. A researcher who ponders the issue from a philosophical angle is Rafael Capurro who believes that freedom of speech is by no means a foregone conclusion in digital dissemination. Maybe the term sustainable ought to be examined for its meaning beyond the point at which we originally started tracing it.

Even though everybody is targeted by media information from all sides all the time, whether a person is plugged into what is considered most current is bound to happen miles away from them most of the time. But the approximation of individual persons to the real action has become somewhat more calculable. This proves easiest when we’re dealing with non-latent situations. A near perfect example of how words give our intentions away is covered in an article that the New York Times recently wrote quoting data from the Language monitor continuously about the real estate market. Properties, after sex, are the most talked about issue in the Big Apple and people take care to keep their language as up to date as possible on the housing front. The way houses are described is constantly subject to change, which is highly indicative on the real situation on the ground and shows how valuable the work of the guys at Language Monitor actually is.

The term sustainable is by no means the easiest to make a good assessment of impact. It is a phrase associated with survival in a sense that is not necessarily associated with the general cut throat, filth inducing survival terminology. Also, it appears to have gone through an evolution of its own in the course of 2006, according to the people at the Language Monitor. Apparently, the originally ‘green’ term managed to move into a new realm by dint of entering into the mainstream. Sustainable now has become associated with its broader meaning, i.e. ‘self-generating’. It is generally used to apply to populations, marriages, agriculture, economies, and the like, the Language Monitor asserts. And, o yes, it is the opposite of ‘disposable’. Woah, by dint of its opposite alone, it is inconceivable that any one person on the face of this earth has not been impacted by the craze for sustainability that was unleashed when they were not aware of it. They only needed to have thought ‘I am going to buy an mp3 player tomorrow’ and evidence of them having been impacted by the sustainability craze would already have materialized.

How would our bus-stop person have been n o t i c e a b l y influenced by the media’s hype for sustainability? We are living in the 21st century, but how the hell do we go about finding adequate evidence of the impact of media writings about a phenomenon on someone’s life?

For all our sophistication, other than seeing the actual word spelled out online thousands of times over, we’re not going to easily trace this in all its depth. We performed research and found that tracing news stories focusing on ‘sustainability’ that actually led to a spike on Google searches for the word is easy. It is less easy to understand how overall 2006 search was impacted by the news sector or what the other factors were behind people’s decision to look the term up in their browsers.

Google Labs has recently put out Trends, a tool that allows users to perform searches for up to five terms, and to compare how often they have been queried. Underneath the graph for the particular phrase’s popularity, they’ve listed a graph indicating how the term scored in the global media.

The software is in its earliest stages of development, but it offers some cool features, including the option of specific time frames anywhere from 2004 on. Inputting ‘sustainable’ and checking the 2006 button results in a curve which shows one dramatic spike – in July 2006. The dates are hardly visible, but with the help of a real life ruler stuck over the screen, it could be assumed with some confidence that on 26 or 27 July of that year, some major piece of news featured highly in the global headlines, involving an sustainable related issue of sorts.

So what more can we find out about how are we impacted by media reports on sustainable issues? The Google trend tool is quite good for finding news stories on the topic on days that there are top events, but it’s rather impossible to get good explanations over longer stretches of time where news is less high profile. Google news archives show that the remainder of the year is made up of stories that reflect exactly what the people at the Language Monitor indicate in their article about 2006’s top words. The Google archive resembles an almost constant flow of more or less unrelated, local news stories that hardly are making world news headlines, apart from a few. The International Monetary Fund reprimanded the Australian government to become more sustainable. Incidentally, Australian cities do dominate the top ten cities where most people performed searches for sustainable. And that is actually quite strange but nevertheless a telling sign for the way to understand how sustainable actually became the mainstream word of 2006 that the language monitor people say it is; the effort to achieve sustainability is in most cases not linked to the big deal signed in Kyoto but to issues pertaining to corporations, health, marriage, town development, agriculture and others. The results vary widely it’s more a city by city based effort. Kyoto protocol is what the people in Adelaid grappled with; IMF requirements counted for the spike in Canberra. Oregon is the only US city on the list and also for reasons completely of its own.

Another finding, which alone might make this study worth its while, is that President Bush obviously attempted to capitalize on the positive connotation and the upswing of the phrase, calling for a sustainable peace in the Middle East.

So, recapturing on the Google and Technorati data, we begin to have a vague incling as to how the world stacks together in terms of who’s setting the news media agenda. The way the little man is ultimately influenced by it all is of course the other end of the spectrum altogether. Given the choice, people appeared to have their minds on completely different issues; the winning word of the Webster’s Words of the Year 2006 online contest is ‘truthiness’, a noun defined as follows:

1 : “truth that comes from the gut, not books” (Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” October 2005)
2 : “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true” (American Dialect Society, January 2006).

Suffice to say that even though the term is totally different, it is clear that, once again, the agenda was set by a public entity. In this case a public entity upset with a larger public entity. That’s hopeful.

The top ten words people keyed into the Webster dictionary are refreshingly querying the news, almost so as to say ‘hang on a minute, am I insane or is the world going berserk?’. Ever felt the urge to look up the word ‘Google’ in the dictionary? It’s what thousands of people appear to have done in 2006, because Google is the top word. The remainder includes ‘decider’, ‘war’, ‘insurgent’, ‘terrorism’, ‘vendetta’, ‘sectarian’, ‘quagmire’ and ‘corruption’. The Google top news searches were ‘paris hilton’, ‘orlando bloom’, ‘cancer’, ‘podcasting’, ‘hurricane katrina’ , ‘bankruptcy’ , ‘martina hingis’ , ‘2006 nfl draft’ , ‘celebrity big brother 2006’.

So does this leave us with any clear insights into the forces that surround us? The year end is a long way off and it would be interesting to get a better real time take on things perhaps. The blogosphere and Google offer some interesting opportunities, but we’ve seen they are not fool proof by far. One would wish for pathways that are more obvious in associative or bibliographic ways. There are a few interesting projects on the web that are associative, but most are focusing on visual expression. The classic version of bewitched features an interesting associative text application.

Perhaps to get a clear grasp of how media impact the unsuspecting onlookers, we need to simply wait until better tools arrive. This might provide more accurate findings and yield better insights into what controls certain sources actually might hold over our communal consciousness. Who knows, in a few years some real Zeitgeist might be guiding, instead of haunting us. And into the future of course.

We need to really explore an internet version of homunculi. A sort of shamanic experience in a modern medium ought to be invented around such brain-men by creating real stories that by dint of merely being blow life into the outer dimension of events in a speculative way. If a visual setting was decided on, the project could be an interconnected set of parallel environments of the kind that the visual people are constructing, inclusive of characters personifying trends. They would offer great scope for reflection.

Acting in a parallel world which is rather similar to the ordinary, real world, such characters might provoke a new take on reality. This might be because their adventures could be derived purely from facts about trends in society (as documented in traffic trends, registered economic facts, real life happenings) that impact by real events or vice versa. It might also be because they’d ridicule overly soulless and mechanical productions that our children are force fed by the media under the guise that these are going to capture their imagination come what may.

The breeding ground for such a venture already exists; informationalism is widely considered to create a culture that springs from the material conditions in which it is situated, and in turn, acts upon its environment, creating a path of causal relationships. A speculative approach ought to be taken to investigate if we might be missing anything out. Who knows, this might be what Zeitgeist and scale free network experts are concentrating on.

The idea is not totally new. For instance, the makers of Ghost in the Shell, the Japanese anime based tv production, appear very much inspired by the idea that technological advancement has gone full circle and has become indistinguishable from superstition. The Ghost in the Shell production includes many real life stories as well as established fiction.

But perhaps rather than promoting alienating storylines, we need to employ imaginative approaches/memetic type filters to get a grasp of what’s really happening in the larger setting. Creating the types of informational stories that edge on the predictive ought to underpin, not control our authenticity.

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